A "star" is born – Meine "stern"-Stunde
Henri Nannen tells how it was when he turned the teen magazine "Zick-Zack", for which he had obtained a license from the British military government, into the stern, for which he had no license. In addition he recounts how he saved the ailing magazine from bankruptcy by doing business on the black market.
Published in the anniversary issue "40 Years stern" on August 22, 1988
"Let me tell you how it really was: I was sitting on the toilet, and because we didn’t have the luxury of Charmin Ultra Soft, Kleenex or moist towelettes in those times, but cut up pieces of newspaper the size of calendar pages, I sat there reading the fragment of a review in the Neuen Kurier, the only newspaper published by the British military government in Hanover, which a certain Gerd Schulte had written. I had been released as an American prisoner of war to Bad Tölz and the Americans had granted me the opportunity to bring an exhibition of Munich art to Northern Germany into the British zone. Gerd Schulte, was that really my old fellow comrade? Yes, he was.
On the same evening I went to the editorial offices of the Neuen Kurier at the Pressehaus in Georg-Straße, and while we were toasting our reunion with a glass of sugar beet schnapps an English Staff Sergeant named Henry Louis Omond came in. Towards the end of our chat Gerd Schulte suddenly said, "Mr. Omond, you are looking for a licensee for the new daily paper, how about my friend here Henri Nannen?" Three weeks later on August 7, 1946 I became the licensee of the first German daily paper in Hanover, the Hannoverschen Neuesten Nachrichten. It was a paper affiliated with the so-called democratic parties the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU), the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), and the Niedersächsische Landespartei (NLP). The Neuen Kurier, for whose feuilleton Schulte worked, had become a social democratic newspaper called the Hannoversche Presse, over which the head of the Sozialdemokratishe Partei Deutschand (SPD) Kurt Schumacher kept a hand.
My co-licensees at the Hannoverschen Neuesten Nachrichten were for the FDP Will Rinne, former Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper in Varel with the beautiful name Der Gemeinnützige (German wordplay meaning "The Community Service" and "The non-profitable"), the CDU sent a straight shooter from the former political party Zentrum in Hagen called Josef Maria Hasler and for the NLP there was Wolfgang Kwieczinsky. He supplied everything local and regional. I was nonpartisan and responsible for the feuilleton. A newspaper license, what did that mean? It was the permission granted by the occupying power, to found a German publishing house at which a daily newspaper could be published. The first issue of the Hannoverschen Neuesten Nachrichten appeared in print on July 3, 1946 – for many it was at least some kind of intellectual nourishment, for they didn’t have anything else to sink their teeth into.
In the following winter of starvation the weekly ration for "Joe Public" consisted of 1 kilo loaf of bread, 20 grams margarine, 500 grams processed foods, 125 grams salted herring, 100 grams marmalade, ½ liter skimmed milk, 25 grams sour milk cheese and 400 grams potatoes. That was not enough to live on and sometimes enough to die on. In his book "The Spiegel Story – how it all began", the news magazine’s long-time business editor Leo Brawand describes the economical misery of the post war years: On the black market in 1946/47 a pound of sugar cost 400 Reichsmarks, a three-pound loaf of bread 120 Marks, a pound of butter cost 420 Marks and an English cigarette 8 Marks. According to the statistics of the Hanover Economy Office the waiting period for a man’s winter coat was 375 months, for a dress shirt 316 months and a woman’s coat 280 months. A boy’s coat, if applied for when the child was ten years-old, would have reached the "boy" when he was 38.
It is hard to describe the mood of the times during which we went to work on the newspaper. In 1945 there wasn’t this setting out for new horizons like there had been in 1918. We hadn’t only intentionally started a war, we knew this time we had lost without the possibility of recourse to a stab-in-the-back legend as in 1918 along the lines of "undefeated in battle" and we knew we would have to pay for it. We were burdened by the shame for what we, my generation, had done and had let be done: six million murdered Jews, Europe lay in ruins and as a consequence Germany had been torn apart into four occupation zones.
No, I hadn’t been a resistance fighter, and that I hadn’t become a Nazi wasn’t to my credit, but to my parents’ influence and the logical side-effects of my friendship with a Jewish girl that Carl Röver, head of the Nazi district Oldenburg, misconstrued as "active race defilement" in 1938. The result was my expulsion from the University of Munich where I was studying Art History under Professor Wilhelm Pinder. The winter of 1946/47 was confoundedly cold and the Cologne Cardinal Josef Frings proclaimed from the pulpit that in the face of the prevailing hardship stealing coal from a transport wagon would not be considered a sin. Stealing coal was then coined "fringsen".
It was in this winter that I got married in Hanover. The registrar wore knitted, wool gloves. When we were called to enter the barely heated office, I noticed that on one wall a triangle of ice had formed from the ceiling to the middle of the wall. From its tip a trickle ran down over the floor. The registrar noticed my look and explained, "Yes, the toilet pipe above has burst. It has been running down here now for a week." Silence. And then with a joyous voice he pronounced "We will now perform the marriage ceremony." Our wedding dinner was two fried herring each at the main train station restaurant. We washed it down with whey beer.
The English wanted to facilitate diversity of opinion in post-war Germany by licensing print media of various political orientations. That’s why the three-party newspaper Hannoverschen Neuesten Nachrichten was to be divided up into a CDU newspaper, a FDP newspaper and a NLP newspaper. I chose the liberal Abendpost. In the meantime Theodor Heuss, head of the liberals, had become a fatherly friend. Whenever he had to hold a speech in Hanover, I cleared my office at the Pressehaus so he could take his midday nap on my bunk bed from an air raid shelter which I had to prop-up by shoving a suitcase under its broken rail.
Together with Johannes Siemann, a lawyer and notary affiliated with the FDP, I became the licensee of the new FDP newspaper Abendpost. When looking back at it now, it was rather strange, that I at least, for a while at least, was the co-publisher of both the CDU newspaper Hannoverschen Neuesten Nachrichten and the FDP newspaper Abendpost. And as having a newspaper license was virtually like having the permission to print money, we started preparing a magazine. Whether we would be granted a license for it was most doubtful. The Abendpost had meanwhile become our pride and joy. In the city of Celle there was a bookstore that sold about 600 copies of the newspaper to which we had devoted our heart and soul. I wanted to meet the bookseller and thank him. So one day while I was driving my old Opel Super 6 from Hanover to Hamburg, I went looking for his bookstore. When I found it, it became immediately clear why the newspaper was such a sensational success. Just a few meters away on the other side of the street was a fish shop. They needed paper to wrap up the salted herring. It was no wonder the Abendpost was read or rather used as wrapping paper in Hanover and Oldenburg and across the countryside from Emden to Jever. When the currency reform took place that was the end of that.
In the meantime the preparation of a magazine had continued in our editorial office. One thing we weren’t lacking in were ideas for a title: "Jedermann" - "Everyone", "Unsereiner" - "People like Us", "Der I-Punkt"- literally: "The dot on the ‘I’" meaning “The icing on the cake" and yes we even had considered "The White Raven". One day, on a Saturday in 1948, the press regulator of the military government Mr. Deneke called me. He asked me, if I wanted to have the license for a teen magazine published in Bad Pyrmont called Zick-Zack. I didn’t feel like doing a teen magazine. You are destined to inevitably lose your readers. Who wants to read a teen magazine after graduating from school? But then I suddenly had an idea: It must be possible to sooner or later turn this silly Zick-Zack into a glossy magazine for adults, all that was required was a little cunning and craftiness. That was when the stern was born – literally a star was born. I took the license.
In the meantime the Abendpost team and I had found the right name for our magazine project. The American zone already had the magazine Quick, the French zone had the Schwäbische Illustrierte (which later became BUNTE) and the Die Neue Illustrierte came out of Cologne. And then one day Mr. Deneke was no longer there, he had gone on a longer vacation back to England, and Wing-Commander Baker took his place. He was a teacher form Bedford and new seemingly little about the press policies of the British occupying power in Berlin at the time. This was the chance I had been waiting for. I got in touch with Baker and made clear to him that the bi-weekly magazine Zick-Zack was a stupid idea, because the reader never knew if it would be available this Thursday or next, and further the format was too small and should be boiled down to 16 instead of 32 pages and turned into a weekly magazine. And finally I asked him, if he knew that Zick-Zack was actually a Nazi title, reminiscent of "zackig" meaning "hurry-up" and the Hitler Youth’s battle cry "Zicke-zacke-zicke-zacke-hei-hei-hei". That somehow just didn’t fit into their concept of democratic reeducation. But what should the magazine be called? I assumed the thinker’s pose and began talking out loud: "The ragged privates at the train station square or in front of the Pressehaus, they were just kids when they were drafted into the military or in the end into the "Werewolves". And now they are between 16 and 25. Those are the readers that we want to reeducate ("Reeducation" was at that time the official buzzword that characterized the relationship between the British and the Germans). You can’t expect them to read a children’s magazine, you have to show them something like a star of newly found hope – wait a minute Commander, "stern" German for "star", wouldn’t that be a good title? What does Quick mean anyway? A fast-food restaurant? A lock and key service? Is Revue a magazine for show business? stern that’s it. One syllable, you can decline the name and it has a positive meaning. Stars shine. ‘Give me a stern’, it’s quick and easy to ask for. Let’s name the magazine stern!" Baker found this "spontaneous" idea great. His secretary Barbara had me dictate all the necessary changes to the teen magazine Zick-Zack and on the very next day we pulled our sample issue out of the drawer: it, naturally, had already been given the name stern, encompassed 16 pages and the cover showed the young Hildegard Knef lying in the hay. The first issue was published on August 1, 1948.
Readers soon called the stern the "The Court of the German Empire for the man on the street". Not only because the stern always had an open ear for all kinds of hardships – we collected winter clothes, referred lawyers and had a medical advisory board of 17 head and senior physicians from all different fields, so that the stern never had to rely on shady cancer specialists, earth ray cleaners, silver bullet healers or other charlatans.
We were also of the opinion you had to defend people, the individual, against the power of the machine whether that machine be the State, a single government agency, a company, the unions or whatever. The Nazi-slogan "common interests before private" had only been a hypocritical illusion. The State had neither the right, nor did it make any sense, to suppress any self-interest. You only had to channel an individual’s self-interest, so that it didn’t encroach upon the rights of others. "You are nothing, your folk is everything" – how could a happy folk evolve from millionfold nothings?
With the stern we wanted to strengthen the rights and the personal accountability of individuals. Leveling wasn’t what we were after, equal chances for all was. No reduced salary groups for women; help for those who couldn’t keep up due to an illness or incapability. Help in standing up to the arrogance of the public authorities. During a talk with the Minister of Finance Fritz Schäffer in October 1950 he told me a few figures about the requisition of German property. That the Russians were plundering their zone wasn’t anything new. But that the Americans went hunting with their jeeps and machine guns in our forests, that the French were exploiting our mines, there were figures about this and we were determined to publish them in stern.
But how to illustrate this in the issue? Where to get pictures that weren’t dead boring? One example: We had found out that the French Military Governor General Koenig had confiscated the Waldhausen Castle near Mainz for himself. He was sitting at a desk made of rosewood (to a tune of 85,000 Marks) and had had a bed made of Korean goat leather. But how could we get into the castle? During the absence of the general, we had found out, there were a German caretaker and two women who looked after the property. In the hunting lodge next door was a lieutenant together with a sergeant and 14 men who guarded the place. One day two men appeared – the general wasn’t there and the lieutenant on duty had driven to Mainz. The two Germans, one carried a Leica in his coat pocket, explained to the caretaker, that the general’s residence was to be soon vacated and that the plan was to rent out the castle for shooting movies. Therefore, it was necessary to inspect the rooms to decide if they were suitable as movie sets. That’s how we got our pictures of the rosewood desk, the Korean, goat leather bed and of a motorized, barred wall with which General Koenig safeguarded his office at night. The castle renovations had cost 3.8 million marks. This figure we had obtained – now I’m allowed disclose my informant – from the Ministry of Finance’s State Secretary.
And then in stern Nr. 53 from 1950 the article was published: "Oops! We’re living it up! (at the cost of the occupants)", and the readers were astonished at the luxury the Allies were living in at the cost of the destitute Germans. On light bulbs alone the occupants had spent 4.2 million marks. Shooting at light bulbs was a favorite pastime of the GIs. Why the occupied needed 30,634 bras, 20,000 corsets, 150,000 meters pajama fabric, 14,000 pairs of rubber pants, 64,000 diapers and silverware for 284,000 Marks was beyond the research skills of the stern reporters. In return the Minister of Finance Schäffer confirmed the figures we had published before Parliament in every case. The stern was the talk of the town. Our print run increased. The mighty had for once been shown a thing or two.
The Allies reacted to the publication immediately by forbidding the stern for two weeks. We owed it to Lance Pope, the British advisor and friend of the then Minister President of Lower Saxony Hinrich Kopf, that the ban was lifted after only a week. That our advertising clients paid for the ads which couldn’t be published saved us from certain bankruptcy.
Bankruptcy would have also been unavoidable, hadn’t we been able to dig up printing paper again and again whether legally or illegally. I have bought wood on the black market and another time smuggled watches into Switzerland – yes that’s right, not from Switzerland but into Switzerland – to exchange them for paper. My wife sat and cried until a large automobile manufacturer was willing to give us a 4-ton truck for 60,000 cash because he couldn’t stand to see a woman cry. I then drove this truck together with my wife and an invalid Wehrmacht driver’s license to the paper factory in Albbruck in Baden. And with the father of a colleague, who was a miner foreman, I drove into a pit and we sat there drinking schnapps and calling out the miners toast "Glück auf!" which meant “Good Luck!” until they forked out a couple of wagons of coal for which the "field mill" gave me paper to print the stern on.
At the middle of the 70’s the stern had become the largest magazine in the world, when you don’t take magazines like the TV-guide Hörzu and the automobile club members’ magazine ADAC Motorwelt into account. What was the secret to our success? Here’s a little story: journalists from different countries were asked to write a story about elephants for a competition. An Englishman wrote: "The Elephant and the Football". The Frenchman wrote: "L'éléphant et l'amour." The Austrian: "Memoirs of an Age-Old Elephant at the Viennese Burg Theater". The American: "How to breed bigger and better elephants in less time for less money." And then there was the essay by the German: "Character Study and Psychological Fundamentals of Elephants. Tome 1, Volume A: The Burmese work-elephant and its relationship to humans."
In this sense the stern was certainly never really good German. It didn’t teach, but told stories and bundled up information – and we even managed to do this with the politically highly explosive topic Ostpolitik – into a reportage. That’s the entire secret.
Anniversary Issue “40 Years stern” (August 22, 1988)